For years, from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Gary Bettman kept searching for an answer he couldn't find. With no salary cap, the NHL teams that could spend, including the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, did. But many teams that couldn't spend, including teams in smaller markets, more southern U.S. cities and Canadian teams, except Toronto and Montreal, overwhelmed by a 70-cent Canadian dollar, also spent to a point beyond what their revenues would support. In NHL governors' meetings, Bettman would point this out, at first forcefully, over time as if possessed.
He presented elaborate charts: Here's what the league and individual teams take in, here's what we spend. It makes no sense. Here's what winning teams spend, here's what losing teams spend. There's no correlation between spending and performance (there was, in fact, some correlation). It makes no sense.
He would run a roll call of teams, and one by one take team owners, with all their private business splashed up on a big screen for everyone to see, to the principal's office. Here's what you're doing – you idiot – here are the results you're getting – you moron – and, always prefaced by the anti-trust defeating phrase, "Of course, you have the right, as everyone does, to make any decision you want" – what are you going to do in the future – you total fool.
To get out of the principal's office, team owners learned to respond as if at an AA meeting.
"Hi, I'm Bob, and I'm a spend-aholic."
Bettman's buildup would continue each year until free-agent day – July 1. This year would be different. Then on July 1, all hell broke loose. Bob, as well as Dick and Harry, spent his brains out again.
Mutual support and individual humiliation weren't working. Bettman's response was to generate more and worse of the same. But each year, he got the same result. It was suggested to him that his approach didn't work and would never work because many owners had a logic that overrode even financial success. Owners are competitive people, as players are. Owners want to win, as players do. But a player who wants to win, as a free agent, can go to five or six teams, playing each team against the others to drive up the money he seeks. An owner has no place else to go. An owner has to win where he is. When a player he thinks he needs to win sets to leave, he runs after him. An owner's addiction isn't chemical, it's to his own self-image.
Every several years a collective agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association expires and a new one needs to be negotiated. If owners couldn't restrain themselves, Bettman knew they needed a collective agreement that would do that for them. Bob Goodenow, head of the NHLPA, naturally, wasn't looking to co-operate. Goodenow knew these rich, tough owners were actually weak. All he needed was to say "no" to every proposal. Eventually they would cave. And they did.
Finally, Bettman realized they always would. The only way for the owners and for him to win was to take the power out of the owners' hands. He couldn't do that directly. He was their employee.
He had to get their support to change the NHL bylaws so that a higher percentage of team owners were required to override any proposed agreement with the NHLPA he brought to them. Then he'd need the support of only a few friendly owners, and the negotiations were his. He got the bylaws changed.
Bettman girded himself for the 2004 negotiation, month by month building up in himself a belief in the rightness of his position, in the wrongness of the players' position, and a solid dislike of Goodenow. And this time he had the power.
Goodenow said "no" as he always did. The owners locked out the players. The season didn't start. Goodenow said "no" again and again. The owners would cave. Bettman didn't. Goodenow had no other strategy. Goodenow needed the players. Bettman didn't need the owners. It became Bettman against the players. The players caved.
The NHLPA disintegrated. Goodenow left. Infighting among players and their agents produced warring factions, new heads and acting heads of the NHLPA, and a mess. Finally, Donald Fehr, former long-time head of baseball's players union, by far the most effective and respected of North America's professional sports players unions, agreed to be the NHLPA's head. And now here we are. The collective agreement expires at midnight Saturday. The sides seem nowhere near an agreement.
The owners and players both want an NHL of 30 teams because owners have made big investments in those 30 teams and because players want the jobs those 30 teams provide. Some teams are financially weaker. To survive, they need help. The owners want the players to give up more of what they have to see that these teams make it. The players want the owners, especially richer owners, to give up more of what they have to do the same. So the biggest fight between them is over what percentage of league revenues should go to the owners and what to the players, and what constitutes "league revenues."
The fact is, both the owners and players are doing relatively fine. Their fight is not one of economic necessity. Bettman needs to win because he won last time, and he's a winner. The players need to win because they lost last time and have to prove they're not losers. The two sides didn't really start to negotiate until July because there wasn't much to talk about, and because for each to win what he needed to win, neither could agree before the collective agreement expired. There's no agreement because neither needs an agreement. It's not a fight they need to have. They fight because they can.
There's something not quite right about this. Others are affected. It's not obvious that a fan will be better off if the owners win, or the players win, no matter what Bettman or Fehr argue. Fans want their game. They pay for their game – steeply – but a price they accept to pay.
Eight years ago the NHL lost a full season. The fans could have developed new interests. Old hockey-viewing habits might have been broken. But the fans came back in even greater numbers and paid even higher prices. Bettman says the NHL has the "world's best fans," and maybe he's right. But is it necessary that they prove it? Might love and loyalty not be paid back a different way? Or is this just the way things are: a strike or lockout every number of years, an 11th-hour season-saving deal, then two-thirds of a season of games crammed into a half-season of days, and critically, a full playoffs to try to make everyone forget?
We have become better and better at difference. We hire more experts to push our own case. It's their job to win, their only job. Nothing else matters. It's black and white, winning and losing, winners and losers. Grey is boring. Conviction is good. Compromise is weak. Compromisers are spineless. The media decide what's worthy of attention. The media love difference. There's drama in difference, drama in conflict. There is no bigger interest. There are only interests.
So we fight for as much as we can get.
What are the losers – the fans – to do? They could try to stand up together, develop a strategy, stay home from games. As unlikely as that is, big surprises happen, and the strong are never as strong as they seem.
Or the players and owners might say, this is going nowhere good. The way we live isn't about total victory, about being the only one left standing, the only one who wins. An economy, a society, politics, sports don't work if only a few win. With no overwhelming issues, NHL owners and players have agreed to disagree.
They need to learn how to agree to agree.